A new resource from the Ellen G. White Estate helps provide the backstory to many of her counsels.
Ellen White’s Letters and Manuscripts
Things you should know about the new online collection.
By Tim Poirier
In July 2015, on the centennial of Ellen White’s death, the White Estate made available for free on its Web site and apps the letters and manuscripts of Ellen White. The entire collection, found at www.egwwritings.org, consists of more than 8,000 documents roughly equivalent to 50,000 pages. These materials were previously available for reading and study only in hard copy form at the White Estate main office and its many branch offices and research centers around the world.
Why Not Published Earlier?
Although commonly referred to as Ellen White’s unpublished manuscripts, it is important to note that many of the documents—in fact, about two thirds of them—have already been printed in whole or in part in the many compilations and manuscript releases published over the years. Sensitive materials, often dealing with the personal failings of individuals, had remained largely unpublished up to their 2015 release, but with the passing of more generations since the time of the original recipients, it was decided the materials could be made available generally.
Another factor is the advance of technology. If the entire collection was to be printed and sold in bookstores, it would take the shelf space of more than 100 volumes, and the cost would be prohibitive. However, thanks to our digital age, if you want to read the complete letter from which only a portion was quoted in one of the compilations, you can access the materials with a few clicks of a mouse or by simply launching the EGW Writings app.
Some might ask why anyone would take an interest in these materials when we already have all her published works. That’s a good question, because there is nothing wrong with confining one’s study to the thousands of articles and scores of books and pamphlets Ellen White published during her lifetime. In fact, she said quite plainly regarding herself: “If you desire to know what the Lord has revealed through her, read her published works.”1 We might regard her letters, sermons, diaries, and other unpublished communications as complementary materials that provide a window not only into her beliefs and prophetic teachings, but also into her personal life as a wife, mother, counselor, and church pioneer.
Some Major Distinctions
At the same time, it is important to recognize some of the major distinctions between her unpublished manuscripts and her published works. Foremost is that what she wrote in her articles and books was intended to speak to the church at large. In contrast, Ellen White’s personal letters were addressed to individuals in particular circumstances; they often dealt with matters of local interest, such as who might best serve at a certain sanitarium, or how “Brother Smith” needed stronger support from his fellow believers. Principles can be derived from such communications, but understanding the historical context is important so as not to misapply the instruction given. In 2014 the White Estate made a start toward providing such background with its publication of volume 1 of The Ellen G. White Letters and Manuscripts With Annotations, covering the first 15 years of her ministry. It is hoped that funding will be forthcoming to keep that project moving forward.
Another distinction between Ellen White’s unpublished collection and her published works is in the level of attention she gave to materials she never expected to be published. In other words, consider the difference in how you write a quick routine e-mail compared to one that you expect to be posted online and read by anyone in the world. You would scrutinize every sentence to make sure it accurately expressed your thoughts so as to avoid as much misunderstanding as possible. And if you shared a draft with your associates, they might suggest ways in which the communication could be better organized or rephrased.
So it is with Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts. When comparing what she first wrote in letter form with what she may have later incorporated into a published article or book, we should not be surprised to find the material improved editorially. That was the assignment of her literary assistants: not to write the content, but to assist Ellen White in preparing it for publication.
Ellen White’s son W. C. White explained that “Mother’s workers of experience . . . are authorized to take a sentence, paragraph, or section from one manuscript and incorporate it with another manuscript where the same thought was expressed but not so clearly. But none of Mother’s workers are authorized to add to the manuscripts by introducing thoughts of their own.”2 The documents were then reviewed and approved by Ellen White before being printed or mailed. Similarly, changed circumstances might result in Ellen White’s choosing to add or omit entire sentences or paragraphs when making use of a letter or manuscript in a later publication.
Was Everything Ellen White Wrote Inspired?
Perhaps the most challenging question related to Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts is: Can we draw a sharp line between what is inspired counsel and what is mere human opinion? Her collection consists of letters written to well-known Adventist leaders, but it also contains letters addressed to “My Dear Son Edson,” or “My Dear Niece Addie,” or “My Dear Granddaughter Mabel.” Fully one fourth of the letters preserved are addressed to Ellen White’s family. Did she write those under inspiration? What about letters written to those managing her property back in America while she was serving the church in Europe and Australia?
We are reminded that at least 20 books in the New Testament are actually letters written to churches or individuals, and we correctly regard them as having been written under inspiration. In a similar fashion, Ellen White used letters to convey Spirit-inspired instruction she received. At the same time, however, she plainly expressed that she did not expect us to take everything she said or wrote as a revelation from God.
Ellen White explained that “there are times when common things must be stated, common thoughts must occupy the mind, common letters must be written and information given that has passed from one to another of the workers. Such words, such information, are not given under the special inspiration of the Spirit of God. Questions are asked at times that are not upon religious subjects at all, and these questions must be answered. We converse about houses and lands, trades to be made, and locations for our institutions, their advantages and disadvantages.”3 “In my words, when speaking upon these common subjects, there is nothing to lead minds to believe that I receive my knowledge in a vision from the Lord and am stating it as such.”4
We should also remember that the mere absence of phrases such as “I was shown” does not automatically mean that counsel she was giving was not in harmony with light that she had received on the subject.5 Although it may be impossible to lay down a rule that neatly divides what is inspired from what is uninspired, it’s usually the case that it is self-evident from the message itself what authority was being claimed in the letter.
Users accessing the letters and manuscripts in the new database may wonder why there are occasional gaps in the file number sequence. For example, letter 20, 1889, might be followed by letter 22, 1889. What happened to letter 21? Why is it missing? There are several reasons for these “gaps,” none of which is that documents have been withheld. In most cases the reason is that the document was found to be misdated and it has been refiled with a new number in the correct year. In other cases the document was found to be a duplicate of one already on file, or merely retyped from an already available, published source. Additionally, for some years—1904, for example—Ellen White’s secretaries assigned only odd numbers for letters and only even numbers for manuscripts. The database will soon be updated to indicate the reason for each “missing” number.
These are some of the issues to be aware of when researching Ellen White’s unpublished materials. Fortunately, there are new tools and resources available that assist us in appreciating the context for these writings: publications such as the Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, scholarly biographies of Adventist leaders, and digital access to the church’s historical papers. In addition, the White Estate is placing on its Web site the tens of thousands of pages of correspondence written to Ellen White by church members and leaders giving the “other side” of the conversation to her letters.
Whether reading the day-to-day accounts of Ellen White’s activities in her diaries, a strongly worded testimony to an unfaithful leader, or a mother’s heart-wrenching appeal to her wayward son, we are privileged to find in these writings insights and guiding principles that still speak to our time and circumstances.
1-Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 696.
2-W. C. White to G. A. Irwin, May 7, 1900, cited in Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1998), p. 110.
3-Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 1, p. 39.
4-Ibid., p. 38.
5-See E. G. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 64-67.